Tone is the attitude of the author toward his subject topic. It is important to recognize, however, that the tone of the author and the narrator may not be identical. Some authors do inspire their narrators with their own voice, of course, but this is not always the case.
In Ha Jin's The Bridegroom, the author utilizes Old Cheng as the first person narrator. Ha Jin's authorial voice undergirds all of the stories in this twelve story collection, also titled The Bridegroom. To understand the tone in Old Cheng's narrative, Ha Jin's peculiarities in diction and syntax are worth noting.
Often criticized for his sterile, stilted, and sometimes awkward diction, Ha Jin notes that the eventual adoption of English in his writing is both a rebellion of sorts and an effort to incorporate all the classical elements of language in telling a compelling story, in the style of Tolstoy, Gogol, or Chekhov. Ha Jin's careful, often flat style is also synonymous with his own ambivalence toward his subject matter; being an immigrant exile of sorts has rendered him self-conscious as to his right to speak for the oppressed among his people.
To that end, Old Cheng's tone of suspicion, fear, paranoia, and curiosity is faithfully portrayed by Ha Jin through his emotionally removed diction, characteristic of the writing of Chinese authors exiled from their homeland. It is as if the strongest of human emotions must be couched in expected Communist detachment. Below are three articles which will provide a clearer picture of Ha Jin's prose in The Bridegroom.
As you can see from the story, actions and emotions removed from the prescribed Communist Party rhetoric is anathema. Huang Baowen's homosexuality is treated as a curiosity, an illness, and a threat to the interests of the regime. Fervor in any form is frowned upon, unless it is the manufactured emotion inspired by Communist rhetoric.
Instead, regime-motivated intensity and passion which turns families and friends against each other is the status quo. This may well be the reason why Old Cheng's tone is muted, whether he is dealing with party officials, his adopted daughter, Beina, or his son-in-law, Huang Baowen. Strong emotion is deeply antagonistic to party control. The tone in The Bridegroom is deeply characteristic of this control which permeates every part of the human psyche in Chinese society. Additionally, Ha Jin's predilection for this sterile tone may be proof of his distaste for manufactured emotion within the Communist power structure.
To recognize tone, we can utilize the acronym DIDLS: Diction, Imagery, Details, Language, and Syntax.
In The Bridegroom, the diction is in a formal, literary style; this isn't a casual story. Old Cheng is a low level party official, the chief of security at the sewing factory where Beina and Huang Baowen work. In order to save his son-in-law from irredeemable condemnation as an enemy of the state, Old Cheng has to act methodically. His language as he lays out his fears and solutions for Huang Baowen's predicament is detached, methodical, and sterile. The syntax often involves short, declarative statements.
There were two steps I must take: first, I would maintain that he had done nothing in the club, so as to isolate him from the real criminals; second, I would present him as a sick man, so that he might receive medical treatment instead of a prison term. Once he became a criminal, he'd be marked forever as an enemy of society, no longer redeemable. Even his children would suffer. I ought to save him.
The tone of paranoia and suspicion regarding homosexuality is characterized by imagery reminiscent of medieval superstition. When Old Cheng confronts Huang Baowen, the hapless young man confesses that he has taken 'herbs and boluses, and even...baked scorpions, lizards, and toads' to cure his 'disease.' The electro-therapy remedy to 'cleanse' Baowen of his homosexuality is portrayed as a contraption of a bathtub, lined with 'rectangles of black, perforated metal' and hooked up with thick, rubber cords to a machine full of 'buttons, gauges, and switches.' Torture seems to be the prescribed remedy by the Communist Department of Health for what they consider certain ill-conceived predilections.
At one stage, Old Cheng notes the almost mysterious, other-worldly change in Baowen's face. His language suggests a superstitious, irrational, and even a mythical characterization of Baowen as a changeling of sorts.
For some reason, his face turned rather sweet-charming and enticing, as though it were a mysterious female face. I blinked my eyes and wondered if he was really a man.
As illustrated, tone can be recognized through analyzing diction, imagery, details, language, and sentence structure.